"You Englishmen are always wise," observed the rajah, "and I will seriously consider your advice."
The troops advanced, plundering their friends as if they had been enemies, in their line of march. The fields were trodden down and their produce carried off. The sugar-canes were looted by elephants and camp-followers; the well-ropes stolen to serve as drag-ropes; and if any of the country-people attempted to defend their property, they were cruelly ill-treated. The force increased, too, as they advanced. The horse-keepers' wives with their children joined them, not knowing where else to go. Numbers of milk-women came in carrying the milk on their heads to supply the men, and after the camp was pitched their voices were heard crying out in all directions, "doodh." Dogs in vast numbers, with or without owners, joined the camp, snarling and barking all night long; while packs of jackals and hyaenas followed in their track, commencing their hideous concert soon after sunset, and never ceasing till near daylight, while they stole round the confines of the camp to pick up any garbage they could find.
Frequently in the daytime an antelope or a hare would be started, when horse and foot-soldiers and camp-followers would give chase, with the pariah dogs of all sizes and colours dodging amid the carts, elephants, and camels, frequently joined by some horses which would break loose,— creating a hubbub and confusion during which an enemy would have had a fine opportunity of surprising the camp before the fighting-men could fall in to repel him.
At length the mountains appeared in sight, and the rajah, following Captain Burnett's advice, pitched his camp, which was surrounded by a stockade. Here the women and children, and most of the camp-followers, were left, with a small body of troops to guard them. The fighting forces, marshalled in somewhat better order than before, now advanced among the hills. The mountaineers, probably having notice of their approach, kept out of the way, and not an enemy was to be seen. A few villages, scattered here and there on the heights, were apparently deserted. Those which could be easily reached were burned, but no prisoners were taken.
Burnett again warned the old rajah that he was very likely to be led into an ambush, and urged him to send out scouts on either flank to examine the country. They went, but did not return, and it was doubtful whether they had deserted or had been cut to pieces by the mountaineers; the latter being most probably the case.
The army encamped at night in the most open spot they could find, where they were less likely to be surprised than in the valleys, several of which they had passed through. At length, as day was declining, and just as the van of the army was passing over an extremely rocky country, with rugged hills and masses of brushwood growing on them, suddenly the bare spots on every height around were seen covered with warriors armed with bows, javelins, and spears.
The next instant showers of arrows came flying into the midst of the troops, and javelins were darted by the enemy at those nearest them. Calling a halt, the Khan Mukund Bhim, who had been galloping on in advance, turned back, and ordered his men to open fire on their assailants. But no sooner did the nimble-footed enemy find the bullets reaching them than they vanished behind cover, and in another minute the whole valley in which the contest was lately raging appeared open to the advance of the invading forces.
The rajah, however, by the advice of Captain Burnett, halted his army in the valley they now occupied. Retreat was not to be thought of; while to advance, with an active enemy on either side, was dangerous in the extreme. A vigilant watch was therefore kept during the night, and the mountaineers, finding their invaders on the alert, did not venture to attack them.
Next morning the march was resumed. The country ahead, however, soon became more difficult than any they had yet passed through. Orders were therefore given to scale the heights, and the lightly-clad sepoys quickly scrambled up them; but when they reached the summits, no enemies were to be seen. The heights being occupied, the cavalry once more advanced; the foot-soldiers, as they dashed forward, taking possession of each commanding height. A large force was now seen ahead, perched on an apparently inaccessible hill, with a village on the summit, and perpendicular cliffs from eighty to a hundred feet in height surrounding it. The only practicable path passed below this height; while posted on the top and on every projecting crag were the native warriors, prepared to dispute the advance of their invaders.
The rajah's rage at the audacity of the rebels, as he called them, was excessive. He insisted that the heights should be stormed, and the village and all the inhabitants destroyed. Captain Burnett advised him not to make the attempt, but rather to starve out the garrison, or to try and bring them to terms by other means. He would not listen to reason, however, but insisted that the place should be taken as he proposed. As the cavalry could be of no service, the fighting fell upon the foot-soldiers,—who, in a very dashing way, attempted to climb up the heights, but were hurled down again by the enemy from above with arrows, javelins, and huge stones. Again and again they made the attempt,—each time the greater number who were climbing up being destroyed, till the foot of the hill and every ledge wide enough to form a resting-place were strewn with the dead and the dying. The old rajah stormed and swore, and ordered some of the cavalry to dismount and try if they could not do better. Burnett, on hearing the command, assured the rajah that they would certainly be destroyed as easily as the infantry, and suggested that a party should be sent round to take the fort in the rear.
"If you will lead it, I will consent," said the rajah; and Burnett consented on the condition that the lives of the brave villagers might be spared should they yield.
Reginald wished to accompany his friend, but the rajah begged him to remain by his side. "I want your advice and assistance. I much suspect the faithfulness of some of my officers; for they, finding things going against us, may kill me: they have attempted it once before."
Reginald accordingly agreed to remain; while Burnett, at the head of three hundred horsemen, set off to make a wide circuit round the hills, in the hope of reaching the rear of the fort. In the meantime the attack in front was carried on with the same want of success as before, resulting only in the destruction of still more of the rajah's troops.
Night was approaching, and at length the attempt was abandoned. The order was given to encamp in the only spot where this could be done with any degree of safety. A small tent had been brought for the rajah, who invited Reginald, attended by Faithful and Dick Thuddichum, to remain with him. The rest of the force, officers as well as men, lay down with their horses picketed near them. But the night air in that elevated region was very cold, and all complained greatly. The rajah's tent had been fixed amid the ruins of a small temple, built by the former possessors of the country, as the present inhabitants had neither temples nor priests. Sentinels were posted round the camp; but they were ill-fitted for the duty, having been engaged during the whole day in attempting to storm the fort, while they were suffering, moreover, from the cold. The rest of the army lay down to sleep. Reginald, with Faithful, occupied the further end of the tent.
It wanted an hour or two to dawn, when Reginald, he knew not from what cause, awoke. As he looked up, for a moment forgetting where he was, he saw, by the light of a lamp burning in the centre of the tent, the curtain at the entrance noiselessly drawn aside, and three men appear, who, by their dresses, he knew were persons of rank, each holding a drawn sword in his hand. What their intention was, he had no doubt; and shouting to awake the rajah, he sprang to his feet, grasping his own sword and pistols. His shouts awakened Dick Thuddichum, who, sailor-like, was asleep with one eye open just outside the tent. Faithful, at the same time, started to her feet, and at a glance took in the situation of affairs. The assassins, if such they were, seemed not to have known of her presence. Before the rajah could rise and grasp his scimitar, however, the leading assassin was close upon him, about to plunge his weapon in his breast,—when Faithful, bounding across the tent, grasped the traitor in her huge jaws. Reginald attacked the second man, who was advancing towards him; while Dick Thuddichum, with a heavy sword which he called his "cutlash," set upon the third. So staggered were the assassins by the unexpected resistance they met with, and so horrified at the fate of their companion, that they were quite unable, though redoubtable swordsmen, effectually to defend themselves. Faithful sprang by them, carrying the body of their leader in her huge jaws up the steps of the temple; while Reginald shot his opponent, and Dick brought the man with whom he was engaged to the ground with a blow of his weapon. At the same moment a loud uproar was heard from the side of the camp nearest the heights. Shouts and shrieks, the rattle of firearms and the clash of steel, reached their ears; while the cry arose, "The enemy are upon us! The enemy are coming down in countless numbers!—to horse! To horse!" A sudden panic seized the troops. The foot-soldiers, who were bivouacked, suddenly set upon before they could fall into order to repel the attack, were overpowered by the hardy mountaineers, who rushed in among them with their long daggers, and killed all they encountered. The rajah's bodyguard, who had been won over by the traitors, finding those who had seduced them killed, took to flight; while most of the remainder, not understanding what had happened, followed their example.
Fortunately, the rajah's horse was picketed near at hand. Reginald advised him to mount, and offered to try and rally the fugitives. He and Dick threw themselves on their horses; but he shouted in vain to the horsemen to wheel round and attack the foe. He could dimly distinguish the forms of the combatants in the valley below, where it was evident that a desperate struggle was going on. Reginald now called Faithful to his side to assist him in case of emergency. Though she seemed very unwilling to quit her victim, she obeyed him, and came bounding along, still carrying in her jaws the body of the khan. She dropped it, however, at his command, and trotted on in her usual place by his side. By this time some twenty or thirty troopers had collected around their chief; but the rest, as soon as they could find their steeds and mount, galloped off up the valley. Reginald, burning with indignation at the cowardly way in which the troops had deserted the rajah, offered to lead the small body which remained, feeling confident that by charging suddenly into the midst of the mountaineers he could put them to flight.
"They will believe, as they see us coming, that the rest of the cavalry are following, and will not dare to stand the charge," he exclaimed.
The rajah, however, hesitated. "It would be useless," he answered. "At the return of day they would discover our scanty forces and hem us in. The only chance we have to save our lives is to retreat; and we can return again before long and avenge our defeat."
Reginald did his best to restrain his feelings, but he was confident that, had his plan been followed, it would have been successful. While they were yet speaking, a sepoy without his musket came rushing up the hill, shouting out—
"All have been cut to pieces!"
Two or three others were behind him, hotly pursued by a band of the mountaineers, who were quickly upon them, when they were cut down without mercy.
Without attempting to rescue the poor fellow who first escaped, the rajah wheeled round his horse, and ordering his troopers to follow, galloped off along the side of the hill in the direction the rest of the cavalry had taken. The ground, however, was rough in the extreme, and in the darkness of night they could with difficulty guide their horses amid the rocks. Reginald, though feeling no small amount of indignation at the cowardly conduct of the troops, saw that at present it would be useless to urge the rajah to turn and attack the enemy. He hoped, however, that they should soon overtake the rest of the cavalry, who would probably, he thought, halt when they found that they were not pursued, and, it might be, feeling ashamed of their cowardice, return to ascertain what had become of their chief.
Just as the grey light of morning began to penetrate the valley, Reginald, who was riding by the side of the rajah, caught sight of the rear of the fugitives at some distance ahead. The cowardly troopers were soon overtaken, for their horses were blown from their rapid gallop over the rough and hilly ground.
The rajah, concealing his rage, inquired why they had deserted him.
"We believed that you and all who remained behind were destroyed, and that our only chance of saving our lives and revenging your death was to fly," answered several officers whom the rajah addressed, speaking all together that they might support each other.
The rajah well knew that their object in going off was to leave him and his faithful guards to be cut to pieces; but still concealing his real feelings, he observed with perfect calmness—
"You might have ascertained the fact before deserting me; but now you see that I have escaped, we will go back and punish the rebels. The brave sepoys have undoubtedly been destroyed to a man; but that should make us still more eager to avenge their death. And what are you worth, if you cannot do so with your carbines and sharp tulwars? Come on, then, at once! We may take the foe by surprise while engaged in plundering the dead."
The rajah's address seemed to be producing some effect. Those who had not joined the traitor khans flourished their swords aloft, and swore that they would follow the rajah to death or victory; while the mutineers, unwilling to venture through the defiles alone, saw that their wisest course was to assume a willingness to obey, and wait for another opportunity of escaping. The horses of all the party were, however, too much fatigued to attempt moving without some rest and food, while they themselves were also in want of refreshment. A stream near at hand enabled them to obtain water, while each trooper carried provisions for himself and horse. They accordingly dismounted, and having watered their horses at the stream, sat down on the ground to discuss their rice and ghee,—the rajah and his chief officers partaking of the same simple fare as the men. They were thus employed—some lying at their length on the sward, others sitting cross-legged, others warming their food over numerous little fires which they had kindled from the dried branches cut from the brushwood around, the horses picketed on the spots where grass was most abundant—when Reginald, who was endeavouring to swallow the unpalatable mess presented to him by the rajah, caught sight of a figure on one of the neighbouring heights. It was but for a moment, as the man again concealed himself behind a rock. He mentioned the circumstance to the rajah, but that personage seemed to think he must have been mistaken.
"I strongly advise, however, that the men should be ordered to mount forthwith," said Reginald. "Should the mountaineers have followed our track, they may be in our midst before the men have time to stand to their arms or reach their horses; and we may be cut to pieces as the infantry have been."
But the rajah was still unconvinced. "Let the men finish their meal," he said; "and then, if the rebels come on, we will treat them as they have treated our foot-soldiers."
A few minutes more passed by, during which Reginald had been watching the heights, feeling certain that he had not been mistaken. Suddenly he exclaimed, "See, Rajah!—I warned you."
"To horse! To horse!" shouted the rajah, springing on his steed, which his syce had brought him.
Reginald followed his example,—as, of course, did Dick. He was not a moment too soon, for, the instant he had spoken, from behind every bush, tree, and rock on the surrounding heights appeared the dark forms of a host of warriors. Showers of arrows now began to fly into the midst of the camp; while through the ravine which led directly down towards the plateau on which they had halted came a compact body armed with tulwars and shields. The troopers rushed to their steeds, mounting in hot haste, for in another minute the furious savages would be among them. The rajah and his guards, who gathered round him as they could throw themselves on their horses, dashed on; while the remainder followed, galloping helter-skelter, the officers and men mingled together, each eager to get ahead. Some of the horses getting loose, they were left to the mercy of the enemy; as were also the troopers who were unable to mount before the enemy were upon them. Reginald, his cheek burning with shame at the disgraceful panic which had seized his companions, galloped on by the side of the rajah, who refused to halt and attempt to beat back the foe, in spite of all that he could urge. Dick and Faithful kept close by him. "Bless my heart!" exclaimed the former, "I don't like this sort of fun. Why, if we were just to turn round and bear down on the enemy, we might scatter them like the wind! The faster we run, the faster they will come after us."
The flight continued; but so active were the mountaineers, that they kept close to the heels of the fugitives, piercing many a warrior through the back with their far-flying arrows. Reginald mentally resolved never again to accompany an Eastern prince in an attempt to punish his rebellious subjects.
At length more level ground appeared ahead, and the horsemen began to distance their pursuers. But there were still some dangerous defiles to be passed; and Reginald remembered that the path by which they had come had many twists and turns, and that too probably the mountaineers would make their way by short cuts through the hills, and again present themselves on the inaccessible heights on either side of the passes.
The rajah and his horsemen at length of necessity pulled rein, to breathe their panting steeds; and information having been passed along from the rear that the enemy were no longer in pursuit, they now rode on more leisurely, talking loudly of coming back with an overwhelming force to annihilate the audacious rebels. Ere long, however, Reginald's worst apprehensions were realised. Before them appeared a narrow valley, with gorges running into it on either side. The rajah, who had recovered his presence of mind, here ordered a halt, and directed his men to see that their saddle-girths were tight and their arms loaded.
"We must pass through yonder valley as fast as our horses' feet can touch the ground," he exclaimed. "Forward!"
Scarcely had he spoken, and made his horse bound onward, when the hilltops were seen bristling with spears, and hundreds of dark warriors, with bows and arrows or javelins in hand, appeared ready to rush down upon the invaders of their territory. The rajah now hesitated. Reginald advised him to dash on at once; to remain where they were would only encourage the foe, and the troopers with their firearms might clear the heights, and most, if not all, of their party might escape. But the rajah did not follow his advice. Then the mountaineers, instead of wisely remaining in an impregnable position, were seen descending the heights, believing from their previous success that they might destroy the rajah and his whole force. A few only remained on the summit of the precipice. Down came from either side a thick stream of savage warriors, throwing themselves upon the horsemen; and again and again they were driven back. The old rajah showed himself brave enough now, fighting as fiercely as any of his guard. Reginald and Dick did their best, too; while Faithful sprang from side to side, bringing many a mountaineer to the ground. Still, several horsemen had fallen; and numbers coming on, the party were completely hemmed in, a dense mass collected in front precluding all possibility of escape, unless a way could be cut through them; while the troopers who fell were immediately hacked to pieces by their enraged foes.
It was now too late for Reginald to mourn his folly in having accompanied the old chief. Brave as he was, he could not help believing that he and all with him would be cut to pieces. Still, a way might be forced through the foe; so, shouting to those in the rear, he ordered them to close up. "Now, Rajah," he exclaimed, "we must let nothing stop us. Shout to your people to follow, and dash on!"
The word was given, but so dense was the mass in front that success appeared hopeless. Just then a shout was heard from several of the troopers, "See! See! Our friends are coming!" At the same moment Reginald caught sight of a large body of horsemen, whom he at once recognised as those who had accompanied Captain Burnett, galloping down the ravine on the left. From the heights above, they had apparently observed the perilous position of their friends; and on they came like an avalanche, at headlong speed, throwing themselves impetuously on the mountaineers, who gave way as the surface of the ocean recedes before the bows of a gallant ship impelled by the gale. Before they could regain the heights, both parties of cavalry had united and cut their way through them, leaving, however, many of their number dead on the field. There was no thought of pulling rein now. Captain Burnett reported that nearly a third of his men had separated in one of the defiles, with two or three officers; but whether they had escaped from among the mountains by a different route to that which he had taken, or been cut off by the foe, he was unable to ascertain. He hoped, however, that they had escaped, and would before long rejoin the main body.
On galloped the horsemen, without even casting a look behind, till, as the shades of evening were gathering amid the mountains, they caught sight of the still sunny plain ahead. Onward they dashed; and at length, men and horses almost exhausted, they halted, as darkness came on, by the side of a calm lake, where they could bivouac without fear of being attacked by the mountaineers,—who would, they were very sure, not venture to follow them into the plain.
DESERTION OF CHIEFS—THE CAMP REACHED—MOURNING FOR THE SLAIN—THE RAJAH TAKES IT COOLLY—A HUNTING EXPEDITION—REGINALD'S NARROW ESCAPE—SAVED BY FAITHFUL—BAD NEWS FROM THE CITY—THE RAJAH AND HORSEMEN SET OUT— REPORT OF REBELLION CONFIRMED—THE RAJAH AND REGINALD ASSUME DISGUISES.
Reginald and Burnett, with Dick Thuddichum and Faithful, kept watch by the side of the rajah, who was greatly cast down, not only at his defeat, but on account of the dissatisfaction exhibited by so many of his influential followers. During the night, while the old chief was asleep, they heard some slight stir in the camp; but as the sentinels gave no alarm, they did not consider it necessary to go and ascertain the cause.
Next morning, when the rajah came to muster his men, he discovered that several of those who had been seen after they had escaped from the mountaineer, were missing, among them being two or three chiefs of rank. On making inquiries, he ascertained that they had moved off,—for the purpose, as they said, or obtaining better fodder for their horses, and provisions for themselves.
"Whatever their intention was, they went without my permission!" exclaimed the rajah in an angry tone. "They have gone to rob and murder the people, as is their wont. No wonder my subjects are ever ready to rebel—I must get you, my friends, to assist in reforming the abuses of my government," he continued, turning to Reginald and Burnett, "I have written to the Company, begging them to send me a resident and a regiment or two of sepoys, to help me to keep order among all ranks. Let the princes and nobles grumble as they will, all those cities are the most prosperous which are under the protection of the English."
"Your words are full of wisdom," answered Captain Burnett. "I will, with your permission, report the state of affairs at Allahapoor; when the Company, I have no doubt, will attend to your wishes."
The shattered remnant of the gallant force which had marched to the mountains was now in motion, and dashed on. Before evening they reached the fortified camp, where, as soon as the loss they had suffered was made known, they were received with loud wailings and lamentations,— wives mourning for their husbands, and children for their parents. The missing cavalry had not yet appeared, and Burnett began to entertain serious apprehensions that they had been cut off.
A couple of days were spent at the camp, which was then broken up, and the march was continued for Allahapoor. At the end of three days they reached an ancient palace, with a temple near it, belonging to the rajah. It was in a somewhat ruinous condition; but still it afforded accommodation for him and his suite. His attendants quickly cleaned out some of the rooms, and fitted them up with tent-hangings and carpets, while a foraging party was sent through the surrounding country to collect provisions.
The rajah seemed in no hurry to return to Allahapoor, and to all the trouble and cares of government; and Burnett suggested that things might be getting worse at his capital.
"Oh, no!" he replied; "they are as bad as they can be; and the resident will put them all to rights when he arrives, and save me a vast amount of trouble. In the meantime you may amuse yourselves with hunting. There must be an abundance of game in the neighbourhood, as the tigers alone, I am told, carry off at least a dozen peasants a week; and there are deer, bears, and wild boars without number. You will find it a perfect huntsman's paradise."
"Not at all a paradise for the unfortunate peasants," observed Burnett. "However, we will take advantage of your highness's permission, and try to rid the country of some of the savage brutes."
Several elephants were immediately got ready, and a party of horsemen ordered out to attend on Reginald and his friend. They preferred being together on one howdah, into which they mounted by a ladder. The weather was pleasant, and a breeze from the mountains gave a freshness to the air not to be found in the lower plains.
They had gone some distance, passing through a magnificently wooded country, when, as they approached a village which was said to have suffered greatly by the depredations of tigers, they were met by the chief man and two of his principal officers, who, with humble bows, gave them welcome. They had heard, they said, of the prowess of the two sahibs, and begged that they would exert their skill and destroy all the tigers which infested the neighbourhood. Burnett was highly amused; but promised that he and his companion would do all they could, if the people would undertake to drive the animals towards them. The answer appeared to be satisfactory, and Reginald and Burnett entered the village mounted on their elephants, and accompanied by a noisy multitude, some on camels, others on horseback, and a number on foot, shouting their praise, and threatening death and destruction to the formidable man-eaters which had long been the terror of the neighbourhood.
"We must perform wonders, to retain our reputation," said Burnett, laughing; "though I doubt if our friends will do much to help us. They stand too much in awe of the tigers to venture near their lairs; and it will only be by great good fortune that we shall fall in with any of the brutes to kill."
As they were anxious not to be long absent from the camp, they immediately started towards the jungle in which the tigers were said to take refuge.
As we have more exciting matter to narrate, we must not dwell long on the day's adventures. The beaters had for some time been hallooing and shouting on either side, when, just as the Englishmen's elephant was twenty yards or so from the edge of the jungle, a huge tiger made its appearance. With one bound, before they had time to take aim, it fixed its powerful claws in the creature's neck, barely missing the mahout. The elephant, with a roar, turned round and dashed off, holding his trunk in the air. The tiger was now preparing to make a spring into the howdah, when Reginald and Burnett both firing, it dropped wounded on the ground, the elephant putting its huge foot upon it to squeeze out any remnant of life it might retain. Two more tigers were killed, one of which sprang out in the same way as the first; while a third, though wounded, stole off through the jungle.
"Tiger-shooting from the back of an elephant is but slow work, after all," exclaimed Burnett the next morning, as they were breakfasting in the house of the chief man of the village, where they had slept. "I propose that we try what we can do on foot. The shikaree wallah we spoke to last night seems a bold fellow, and will show us some sport. What do you say?"
"With all my heart," answered Reginald. "Our host has some good-looking horses, and as he will be proud of mounting us, I would rather ride to the jungle than have to sit on the back of a lumbering elephant."
Their host at once expressed his readiness to furnish the sportsmen with steeds; and in a short time they set forth towards a part of the jungle in which the shikaree assured them that numberless tigers were to be found.
Reginald was in better spirits than he had been since the disastrous affair with the mountaineers, and laughed and talked in his usual style with his friend as they rode along. Suddenly they came upon a huge animal lying down in the shade of a wide-spreading tree. As the creature, disturbed by their approach, rose and faced them, it was seen to be not less than seven feet in height at the shoulder, with a vast head, and horns of a formidable character. It was a gyal, a description of wild cattle found in the hilly parts of the plains of Hindustan. The savage animal, shaking his head and stamping on the ground, prepared to charge.
"I'll fire first," cried Burnett. "If he does not fall, do you try to hit him; and should you also fail to bring him to the ground, gallop off on one side till you can get behind a tree to reload, while I take the opposite direction, so as to distract his attention. We shall thus master him, depend on it."
As Burnett finished speaking he fired. The dull thud as the bullet entered the body of the gyal could be heard; but the creature, apparently not feeling his wound, came rushing with a loud bellow at the horsemen. Reginald delivered his fire, as he had been advised, but without stopping the bull; and then he and Burnett galloped off in opposite directions. The gyal followed the latter, making the very ground shake as he rushed bellowing along in chase of the huntsman, whom he might have tossed, with his steed, into the air, had he overtaken them. Burnett, however, was too practised a sportsman to be thus caught, and, dodging behind the trees till he could reload, was soon again ready to face his foe. Reginald, meanwhile, having discovered that the gyal was not following him, pulled up under a tree to reload. As he was ramming down the charge, his horse started, and the next moment a huge tiger, springing out of the jungle, fixed its jaws on the flank of the poor steed, which it brought to the ground, providentially failing to strike Reginald with its claws. His first impulse was to try and extricate himself from beneath his fallen horse, so that he might have a chance of defending himself; but as he was endeavouring to do so, the tiger, loosening its hold of the horse, sprang open-mouthed at him. At that moment he heard a shot, and the next the sound of a horse's hoofs approaching him; but though help was coming, it would have been too late had he not, with wonderful presence of mind, rammed the butt of his rifle down the throat of his savage assailant. It merely served to check the brute for an instant; still, that instant was of the greatest value. Though Burnett came galloping up, he was afraid of firing lest he should hit his friend instead of the tiger; but unexpected assistance now arrived. A loud roar sounded through the forest, and another tiger, springing on the neck of the one attacking Reginald, dragged it away from him, and pinned it to the ground. The newcomer was Faithful. Nobly she fought for her master, and victory soon declared in her favour.
Reginald, getting on his feet, held the horse of his friend, who, taking a steady aim, sent a shot through the brains of Faithful's antagonist. Reginald patted his pet on the head, and tried to make her understand how grateful he felt to her for her timely aid; and she in return gave him that peculiar look which, in the feline tribe, exhibits pleasure and satisfaction. The natives soon afterwards coming up, looked with wonder at the tigress, and congratulated the sahibs on their victory, for Burnett had killed the gyal as well as the tiger.
Burnett was eager to go in chase of more game; but Reginald had had hunting enough for one day, for though he had escaped without any actual wound, his legs were bruised from being crushed under his horse. The poor animal was so much injured, that its owner shot it to put it out of its agony. Another steed was forthwith provided for Reginald, who rode back to the village attended by a number of the astonished inhabitants, and accompanied by Faithful, whose opportune appearance he was at a loss to account for.
"We must wait till we get back to camp to hear more about the matter," observed Reginald, patting his favourite's head. "Dick will be very unhappy at missing you. He little thinks what good service you have rendered me."
Burnett, who had remained behind, arrived towards the evening, having shot two more tigers, thus greatly increasing the fame of the Englishmen.
"No wonder that their countrymen are the conquerors of the world, when these two sahibs make nothing of killing half-a-dozen man-eaters," was the remark made on all sides.
After receiving the thanks of the villagers, who petitioned that they would come again to shoot more of their foes, Reginald and Burnett returned to the headquarters of the rajah. As they arrived, they saw an extraordinary personage standing in the hall waiting to be admitted. He had almost the appearance of a bronze statue, so motionless did he stand, and his rigid features being apparently incapable of expressing any sentiment, either of pleasure or pain. His dress consisted of a cloth wrapped round his waist, a scarf over his shoulder, and a turban on his head—the upper part of his body and his legs being completely exposed. The man was a fakir, one of a class of religious fanatics, who, ignorant of a God of love and mercy, believe that holiness can be obtained by practising the most rigid self-denial and the infliction of every variety of torture on themselves.
Burnett inquired whence he had come.
"From Allahapoor," he answered. "Night and day I have travelled, to see the rajah on a matter of importance. Tell him, sahib, that it admits of no delay, and that I must forthwith be admitted to an audience."
Burnett, believing that the fakir had really some matter of consequence to communicate, hastened to the rajah, who desired that he should at once be admitted. In spite of his mean attire, the rajah received the fakir with the same respect he would have bestowed on the proudest noble.
"Whence do you come, and what tidings do you bring?" he asked.
"O Refuge of the World, I come from the well-beloved, the Princess of the Universe, your grandchild the Ranee. She sent for me, knowing that I could be trusted, and bade me hasten to your highness with some information she had obtained, I know not how. My only desire was to obey her orders. During your absence treachery has been at work in the city; and even now, unless some fortunate chance has prevented them, your enemies are in possession of your palace and riches. Khan Mukund arrived some days ago with a party of horsemen, who spread the report that your highness was dead, and that he intended to get himself proclaimed rajah in your stead."
The rajah started up and placed his hand on the hilt of his sword, as if he would rush off at once to recover his possessions; then recollecting that he was at a distance from Allahapoor, he made further inquiries of the fakir, whose answers confirmed him in the belief that the man spoke the truth.
"I now see why those traitors galloped off in order to reach the city before us. What do you advise, my friends?" he asked, turning to Burnett and Reginald.
"That we act with judgment and caution, and we may yet win back your city and restore you to power," answered Burnett. "You have still a faithful band remaining with you; and the traitors cannot possibly be aware that you have requested the presence of an English resident, and a regiment of sepoys. Their arrival will of necessity disconcert the plans of the rebels. When it is known, the usurper will probably take to flight, and you will quickly have your own again."
"But, in the meantime, what will the wretches have done with my family, and my grand-daughter Nuna, and the rest of those I hold dear?"
This remark made Burnett feel very anxious, for he could not give a satisfactory reply. "They will scarcely venture to ill-treat the defenceless, well knowing that vengeance will speedily overtake them," he answered at length. "Besides, remember, O Rajah, that this holy man has only told us what he fears may possibly take place. The events he speaks of have not actually occurred, and we may hope that something may have prevented the expected outbreak. If we hasten back to Allahapoor, we may arrive in time to frustrate the plans of the conspirators. With the body of trusty followers you have with you, and those who still remain faithful in the city, we shall be able to overcome your foes, even should the rebellion have begun."
Burnett's remarks had the effect of reviving the spirits of the rajah, and he immediately issued orders for a picked body of his cavalry to get ready for a move that very night, a small number only being left to guard the women and camp-followers. Adopting Captain Burnett's advice, he purposed pushing on towards the city as fast as their steeds could carry them; while the rest of the party were to move forward at their usual slow rate, beyond which it was impossible to advance. Even the rajah and his party could not perform more than thirty or forty miles each day, as their horses required food and rest; and they had fully three days' march before them.
The rajah could only talk of the vengeance he would take should the rebels have succeeded; and he vowed that the streets of the city should run with the blood of his foes as soon as he had succeeded in overpowering them. Burnett, who knew very well that he would carry out his threats, and anxious to prevent the hideous cruelties which would be committed, endeavoured to pacify the old chief, and reminded him that possibly the expected resident might have arrived with the British sepoys, whose presence would disconcert the plans of the rebels, and probably induce them to abandon their design.
Reginald was anxious on his own account. The services he had rendered the rajah merited the best return which could be made, and he had had great hopes that his wish would be complied with; but should the rajah be hurled from power, he would be unable to grant him his request. As far as he could ascertain, the rajah was the only man possessed of the important secret he wished to obtain, so that should the old chief lose his life Reginald would be deprived of the only clue which might lead to its elucidation. He determined, therefore, to take the first favourable opportunity of telling the rajah who he was, and entreating him to give him the information that was of such vital importance to his future interests. Reginald had been led to believe that the rajah would be very unwilling to enter on the subject, and he had therefore hesitated to introduce it, till he felt more sure than he had hitherto done, of the footing on which he stood with the old man.
For two days the party had ridden on, stopping only a sufficient time to rest their steeds, and to recruit themselves by sleep and food. They had taken a different route to that by which they had come, avoiding all populous villages, in order that information of their approach might not be carried to the city. One day's march only remained to be performed; and the party bivouacked by the side of a wood, which concealed them and the fires they lighted to cook their food from the high road, which ran at some distance. The rajah was sitting on his carpet near the campfire, with Reginald and Burnett by his side, Dick Thuddichum and Faithful being close at hand, serving as efficient guards. The men lay about, their horses feeding close to them; while scouts watched on the outskirts of the camp, as if they were in an enemy's country—for it was thought possible, should the rebels discover that the rajah was approaching, that they would send out a strong force to attack him. These measures were taken by the advice of Captain Burnett, who had also recommended that they should take the unfrequented road they had followed, so that they might have a good chance of surprising the rebels.
The rajah showed himself sensible of the important aid he had received from his English attendants, and on this evening he seemed more inclined to open his heart to them than heretofore.
"Had it not been for you, my young friend, I should be even now a clod of the earth, my body left to be devoured by the fowls of the air and the wild beasts of the forest. You and your faithful tigress saved me from the daggers of my traitorous officers. And your opportune arrival prevented our being cut off by the mountaineers, as would otherwise have been our fate," he added, turning to Burnett.
The two young men, in the usual Oriental phrases, expressed their satisfaction at having rendered any service to his highness.
"And now tell me how I can reward you," exclaimed the rajah. "Only let me know; though, alas! Should I lose my power, how can I fulfil any promises?"
Reginald saw that now the favourable opportunity he had wished for, of speaking to the rajah of himself, had arrived.
"Your highness can render me a greater service than you may suppose," he said, speaking slowly, for he knew that he was treading on delicate ground. "My friend and I are not the first Englishmen who have resided at your court. There was one who served you faithfully, and whose sword preserved your life when surrounded by foes in battle; but traitors, who were jealous of the favour you bestowed on him, conspired to take his life; and they would have succeeded, had he not, leaving all he held dear, together with his worldly wealth, and undergoing great hardships, been successful in making his way to Calcutta with his young son. When there, important information he received compelled him to return to his native land. Once more he came back to India, with his son, intending at all hazards to revisit you; but the trials he had gone through had shattered his health, and when just about to set out on his journey he died, leaving to his only son the duty of vindicating his fair fame, and regaining the property of which he had been deprived."
"Who told you all this?" exclaimed the rajah in an agitated voice. "Where is the son of whom you speak? I would greatly rejoice to see the boy. I would not only restore him his father's property, but raise him to a rank next to myself in my government."
Just at that moment an officer hurried up to the rajah, and after making the usual salutation, informed him that the scouts had fallen in with a messenger from the city who was on his way to try and find their party. "The information he has to give will not allow of an instant's delay, he says," added the officer.
The rajah ordered that the man should be immediately admitted to his presence.
"What news do you bring? Speak at once," exclaimed the rajah.
"Unhappy I am to bring it, for it is bad news," answered the man. "The whole city is in a tumult. Mukund Bhim has been proclaimed rajah, and already more than half the people have sided with him; still there are some who remain faithful, and if your highness were to appear among them at once, the rebellion might be quelled, and your power restored. Your servant ventures to advise that you should gallop on during the night, so as to enter the city by daybreak—though the distance is great, your steeds may get over the ground in time—and by taking the rebels by surprise you may overcome them before they can offer resistance; when the loyal people will gather around you, and you may once more find yourself the undisputed ruler of Allahapoor."
"Your advice sounds full of wisdom," answered the rajah. "To horse, my friends! And we will not pull rein till the walls of my rebellious city appear in sight."
The whole camp was immediately astir. The horses, unfortunately, in consequence of the rapid march of the two previous days, were ill able to gallop on for thirty miles without stopping, with the prospect of some hot fighting at the end of it. Still, march they must at all hazards.
Each horseman, before mounting, tightened up the girths of his saddle; and all having fallen into their ranks, the order to move forward was given. A strong advance-guard led the way, with their arms ready for instant use, as they knew that at any moment they might be attacked by the rebels,—who, should they by any means get tidings of their approach, would assuredly send out a numerous force against them. The rajah, attended by Reginald and Burnett, rode with the main body. There was no time for conversation, and Reginald had still to wait for the important information he was so anxious to obtain. A few words only could be occasionally exchanged. On they rode, keeping a tight rein, to prevent their horses from stumbling. Now and then a poor beast came down; and the rider, if he escaped a broken limb, had to make his way on foot, with the risk of either being set upon by a tiger, or murdered by the villagers whose property he and his comrades had plundered. The rajah hoped that he should either be able to force the gates, or that the guards would open them at his summons, and that he might thus be able to catch Mukund Bhim and the rest of the rebel chiefs while they were still locked in slumber.
They were now rapidly approaching the city. Already, in the far distance, the outlines of the domes and minarets of the temples and mosques could be seen defined against the clear sky. No rebels had appeared to dispute their progress, and the rajah began to hope that the rebellion had not yet fully broken out, and that he might still have time to crush it. He and the main body moving on, came up with the advance-guard, which had halted. The rajah inquired the cause. The officer in command answered that they had met a person who had brought tidings from the city. "Let me hear his report," said the rajah; and a man, looking more like a wild beast than a human being, advanced from among the horsemen. He was a byraghee, or religious mendicant. His body was naked, with the exception of a narrow piece of cloth passed between the legs, and fastened before and behind to a string tied round the waist. His hair was long and matted, its bulk increased by plaits of other hair mixed with it. His body was smeared with the ashes of cowdung, giving it a most unearthly hue; while his inflamed and bleared eyes could scarcely be perceived amidst the mass of dirt which clung around them. Anything less human could scarcely be imagined than the appearance of the miserable being.
"What tidings do you bring from the city?" asked the rajah anxiously.
"Bad—very bad, O Refuge of the World," answered the mendicant. "Last night, ere I passed through the gates, I saw your foes shouting forth the name of Mukund Bhim, their new rajah. It was reported that you had perished, and all your followers had been slain amid the mountains; and no one I met discredited the tale. Thus your friends are disheartened; but if you were to appear among them, to show that you are still alive, they would regain their courage and fight bravely in your cause."
"But how to get among them, is the difficulty," observed the rajah. "Tell me, byraghee, are the gates closed?"
"Not only closed, but strongly guarded," answered the mendicant. "It would be vain to attempt to force them; your only way of entering will be in disguise. I passed, encamped at a short distance from the gates, a caravan of merchants with their camels, who had arrived too late to find admittance last night. If your highness would condescend to disguise yourself as one of them, they would consent to your entering among them,—trusting to your generosity for the reward you would bestow should you succeed."
The rajah, after considering the matter, agreed to the proposal of the byraghee. He then invited Reginald to accompany him, while he begged Burnett to take the command of the horsemen, and to remain concealed in the wood in which they were drawn up till he could send word to them that a favourable opportunity had arrived for making a dash into the city. "The risk, I know, is great," he added; "but I am ready to hazard my own life for the sake of recovering what I have lost."
"The commands of your highness shall be obeyed," said Burnett; "and may you and my young friend be preserved in your undertaking! Unless treachery is at work,—as no one will suspect that you are among the merchants,—the hazard is not so great as it may appear."
All necessary arrangements being made, the rajah, accompanied by Reginald, proceeded on foot to the merchants' camp; while Faithful, whose appearance might have betrayed them, remained behind in the care of Dick Thuddichum.
To the rajah's satisfaction, he found that the merchant to whom the caravan belonged was a Parsee with whom he had formerly had satisfactory dealings, and who might be thoroughly trusted. The required dress was produced—the rajah's rich costume being packed up among the bales—and he appeared in the guise of one of the merchant's clerks; while Reginald assumed the costume and arms of a common sowar employed in guarding the merchandise.
THE CARAVAN ENTERS THE CITY—REGINALD MEETS THE BYRAGHEE—SENDS A MESSAGE TO BURNETT—THE RAJAH AND REGINALD FIND THE GUARDS MURDERED AT THE PALACE, AND NUNA CARRIED OFF—REGINALD PRESERVES THE LIFE OF A WOUNDED SEPOY—HE AND THE RAJAH TAKE REFUGE IN THE HOUSE OF A CHRISTIAN NATIVE—ESCAPE FROM THE CITY—PURSUED—VICTORY—THE RAJAH ENTERS THE CITY IN TRIUMPH—NO TIDINGS OF NUNA—REGINALD MAKES AN IMPORTANT DISCOVERY.
Immediately on the appearance of the first streaks of daylight in the sky, the merchant, Hurdeo Buksh, aroused the caravan, which, as soon as the camels were loaded, moved forward to the gate of the city. As he was well known, he had no difficulty in gaining admittance, and they were soon threading the narrow lanes which led to the chief bazaar. The rajah, seated on a camel, with a hood over his head which completely concealed his features, rode next to the merchant; while Reginald, assuming a jaunty air, and armed with a spear and shield, marched by his side. They soon reached the bazaar, where they saw a crowd assembled, reading a huge placard announcing that Mukund Bhim, in consequence of the death of the old rajah, had assumed the reins of government, and ordering all the people, under pain of death and confiscation of their property, to obey his edicts. The crowd impeding the progress of the caravan, the rajah as well as Reginald had time to read the whole of the placard, which also went on to announce the various persons who had been appointed to offices under the new rajah. Among others appeared that of Khan Cochut, as also of several of the chiefs who had deserted Meer Ali Singh among the mountains. "The villains," muttered the rajah, "I will punish their treachery; as for that rascally Cochut, his head shall part company from his body before many days are over."
But people continued eagerly to press forward to read the placard,— traders in long coats and turbans, sowars with shields and spears, women and children,—people in every costume, and people in no costume at all except the dirty cloths around their loins or over their shoulders, and the ever-present turban on their heads. Reginald, knowing the agitation into which the announcement would throw the rajah, was afraid that he would betray himself, so, swaggering on according to the character he had assumed, he forced the crowd to make way for the caravan; which at length got clear, and was able to proceed onward to the house which the merchant was wont to occupy during his stay in Allahapoor.
So far the adventure had been successful, and the rajah took up his lodgings in a room where he was not likely to be discovered. The difficulty, however, was to gain information. The next morning Hurdeo Buksh was obliged to appear in public to make arrangements for the sale of his goods, and was afraid of exciting suspicion should he be seen visiting the rajah's hiding-place. Reginald was willing enough to try and pick up information, but the rajah charged him on no account to do so: his manners and mode of speaking would be sure to betray him. The rajah had ordered his own dress to be brought to him, and he now put it on, telling Reginald that he had come to the resolution of visiting his palace as soon as darkness would allow of his passing through the streets unobserved, and appealing to the loyalty of his guards,—who would, he supposed, be found at their old quarters, the usurper, Mukund Bhim, he had learned from the byraghee, still residing at his own palace.
Reginald thought the attempt a hazardous one, but yet, as it was the only scheme likely to succeed, he consented. After the rajah had told him this, he was sauntering about in the gateway of the house, imitating the manners of a sowar, when he caught sight of the mendicant slowly approaching, asking alms of all he met. The man's little bleared eyes twinkled as he came up to Reginald, whom he appeared at once to recognise.
"You can be trusted, I see," said Reginald. "You will receive a handsome reward if you faithfully perform the service I require of you."
"Say what it is, sahib, and you shall be obeyed," responded the byraghee.
"To hasten forthwith to the spot where our friends lie concealed, and to direct them, as soon as the shades of evening appear, to push forward at hot speed towards the northern gate, which they may reach before they are challenged. Should they succeed in passing through, they are to gallop on to the palace, where they will find the rajah and such friends as he may be able to rally round him. If they fail in the attempt, they are to retire till they hear from his highness or me." Reginald, as he spoke, put a piece of money into the mendicant's hand, to deceive any who might have observed them speaking together.
"You shall be obeyed, sahib," said the mendicant, moving on, and continuing as before to beg of all he met. Instead of going in the direction he had been following, however, he contrived to turn round; and Reginald saw him making his way in the direction of the northern gate, as if bent on carrying out the orders he had received.
"So far our scheme prospers," thought Reginald; "but I wish that I had the means of ascertaining where the rajah's grand-daughter has taken refuge. Should the traitor Mukund Bhim have got her into his power, he would have as little scruple in putting her to death as he would in killing any of the rajah's sons. Poor young creature! I don't like to increase the old man's anxieties by alluding to her, but he must tremble at the thought of what may have become of her."
Notwithstanding the rajah's caution to Reginald, he could scarcely refrain from going out and mixing with the crowd, to obtain information of what was going on. Prudence, however, restrained him. He walked up and down impatiently at his post, in the hope of seeing some one among them who had frequented the court, and who he thought might be trusted; but of the thousands who continued to hurry by he did not recognise a single person. He forgot that all the time he was running a great risk of being recognised himself; for although he had done his utmost, aided by the worthy merchant, to change his appearance, he might easily have been detected by any one who had before known him.
Thus the hours passed slowly away, and at length the shades of evening began to steal over the city. On going up into the rajah's room, Reginald found him habited in his usual costume, with a large robe ready to throw over his shoulders, which, with the aid of the darkness of night, would conceal his figure from those he might meet. His scimitar was by his side, and a brace of pistols in his belt.
"The time for action has arrived," he said in a firm voice. "We will go forth, my young friend, and succeed, or perish in the attempt. Our first care, as soon as we have gathered my faithful guards about us, must be to secure the safety of my grandchild, Nuna; and we may then, should we be attacked, defend the palace till the arrival of your English friend with my brave horsemen. Come, we will set out. I do not fear discovery, as no one will suppose that I am in the city; and people will take me for a foreign merchant on his way to transact business with some khan or other wealthy person."
"Should any one venture to interfere with you, I shall be ready to sacrifice my life in your defence," answered Reginald.
"I fully confide in you, my brave young friend," exclaimed the rajah; "and I would rather have you by my side than a hundred of my native sowars."
They then set out, Reginald having ascertained that no one was near. As they left the gates of the house the rajah walked rapidly along, concealing his face in his robe, while Reginald swaggered on by his side with a martial strut assumed generally by the sowars. A large number of people were still abroad; and as they passed on they caught some of the expressions which were being uttered. It was very evident that a rebellion had taken place, and that the star of Mukund Bhim was in the ascendency.
At length, as they approached the palace, the crowd grew thinner. When they got close to it no one was seen standing about the gates,—the usual guards wore not there,—nor were they challenged as they entered. The silence which reigned everywhere was ominous. After passing across the outer courtyard, the rajah was about to enter the vestibule of the hall of audience, when, drawing aside a curtain which hung across it, he started back with an exclamation of horror and dismay. The whole passage, as well as the flight of steps leading to the upper storey, was strewn with corpses.
"Alas, alas! My faithful guards! On your courage I depended to regain my power!" exclaimed the rajah. "You have died bravely fighting at your posts." Ali Singh stood for some seconds contemplating the scene with a look of despair. "On whom have I now to depend!" he exclaimed; "and my child, what can have become of her!"
"Your highness has your faithful troopers and many friends who are ready to fight for you," said Reginald, advancing. "Some of your guard may be still alive, and concealed in the palace; and they may be able to inform us what has become of your grand-daughter."
Reginald's words seemed to restore the rajah's courage. His first care was to examine the bodies which filled the passage, in the hope that some might be found breathing; but in all life was extinct Reginald urged the rajah to hurry forward, in case the rebels should return before they had time to search the palace. They walked on through the deserted corridors and passages, looking into the rooms as they passed, but not a living being was to be seen. At length, as they were passing a room the door of which was partly ajar, a groan reached Reginald's ear; and calling to the rajah, who was going on, he entered. By the light of the pale moon which streamed through a window, he discovered in the further corner the form of a sepoy stretched on a mat. The blood which had flowed from several wounds on his head and body had trickled over the ground. The man had been apparently endeavouring to stanch them, but had fainted before he had done so effectually. Reginald knelt down by his side, and did his best, by means of a handkerchief which he tore into bandages, to stop the further flow of blood. In a short time the man returned to consciousness; and as his eye fell on the rajah his countenance brightened up.
"Have the rebels been defeated?" he exclaimed. "I thought all was lost."
"We wish to learn from you what has happened," said Reginald. "Numbers of your comrades lie dead at the entrance, and the palace appears to be deserted. We know no more."
"All that I can tell you is that we were attacked last night by Mukund Bhim with a large band of followers; we fought desperately to defend our post, till numbers fell killed or wounded, when the rest were carried off as prisoners. I then, in spite of my wounds, managed to escape, the rebels having left me for dead. They had begun to pillage the palace, when they were summoned away to defeat an attempt of the loyal inhabitants to keep possession of the city till the return of the rajah, the report of whose death they refused to credit."
"And can you give me no account of my child, the Ranee Nuna?" asked the rajah. "Have the rebels carried her off, or is she still in the palace?"
"I know not, O Rajah," answered the wounded man. "While I lay here, expecting every instant to be put to death, I heard the tramp of feet through the passages, and cries and shrieks from female voices."
"The villainous traitors have deprived me, then, of my child," exclaimed the rajah. "Come, my friend, we must ascertain the worst," he said, addressing Reginald. "You must not waste any more time on this man: if it is his fate to live, he will live; if not, he will have the satisfaction of dying in my cause."
Reginald, although as anxious as the rajah to ascertain what had happened, was unwilling to leave the brave sepoy, who was still in much need of aid; but the rajah's impatience would brook no delay, so telling the poor man that he would return as soon as possible, Reginald followed the rajah, who was hurrying from the room.
They made their way towards the women's apartments, observing on either side signs of the fearful struggle which had taken place, though it was still evident that the rajah's own guard had remained faithful. The doors of the women's apartments were open—those sacred chambers into which, hitherto, no man had dared to enter. Female ornaments and dresses were strewn on the ground, articles of all sorts were broken, and the marks of violence were visible even on the walls. The worst anticipations of the rajah were realised: Nuna had undoubtedly been carried off by the rebels. Reginald had difficulty in quieting the old man's agitation. He seemed incapable of deciding what course to pursue. Reginald himself felt deeply grieved at the loss of the young girl, whose possession, he foresaw, would add greatly to the power of the rebels, as, even should they be ultimately defeated, it would enable them to treat on favourable terms with the rajah; and he endeavoured in vain to tranquillise the mind of the old man, by reminding him that it would be to the interest of Mukund Bhim to behave courteously to her.
As it would be dangerous to remain long in the palace, to which the rebels might at any moment return, Reginald endeavoured to persuade the rajah to go back to the merchant's house, where he might remain till the arrival of their friends, should the mendicant have succeeded in reaching them, and should they be able to enter the city. No other course seemed practicable, unless, abandoning all effort to recover his power, the rajah should resume his disguise and attempt to make his escape from the city. Reginald suggested this course, and offered to protect him with his life; the rajah, however, would not hear of it.
Darkness had now set in, and, wrapped in his mantle, the rajah could walk abroad without hazard of being recognised. They first, however, made a circuit of the whole palace; but not a human being was found alive. Before quitting it altogether, Reginald hurried back to the wounded sepoy, whom he was unwilling to leave to perish, as he undoubtedly would if deserted. The man had somewhat recovered his strength, and thought that, with Reginald's assistance, he might be able to walk a short distance.
"You need not do that," said Reginald; "your weight is not great, and I will carry you on my shoulders."
"No, no, sahib," said the sepoy, who had from the first recognised Reginald in spite of his disguise; "should we encounter any of the rajah's enemies, they would kill you as well as me; but if you will take me to the stables—should the rebels not have carried off the horses, I might contrive to sit one, and either make my escape out of the city, or reach the house of some friends near this who will give me shelter."
"I will gladly carry you to the stables," said Reginald; and it at once occurred to him that if he and the rajah could obtain steeds for themselves they might make a dash through the gates, or, should their friends arrive, they would be able to join them and encounter Mukund Bhim and his followers, who were certain not to be far off. Taking the wounded man up on his shoulder, therefore, he staggered with him along the passages, and down the steps in the rear of the palace which led to the courtyard, in the further part of which the stables were situated. The rajah went ahead with his sword drawn, thinking it probable that plunderers might be lurking about; but no one was met with. The whole palace, for some unaccountable reason, was entirely deserted. The sepoy had expressed a hope that the horses had been left in the stables, or Reginald would not have expected to find any there. It seemed more probable that the rebels would have carried them off. Should such be found to be the case, he scarcely knew what he should do with the wounded sepoy. It was with no little difficulty that he managed to convey him even the comparatively short distance he had gone, and he felt that it would be impossible to carry him beyond the palace to the house of the friends he spoke of; he should therefore be compelled to leave him in the stables, where he might die of starvation, unless discovered by any compassionate person who could bring him food.
The man seemed to divine his thoughts. "Care not for me, sahib," he whispered in a low voice, that the rajah might not hear. "The One, I trust, whom you worship, will preserve me. Inquire for the house of Dhunna Singh; tell him where you have left Wuzeer Singh, and he will find the means of coming to my assistance. You may trust him, for he is one who worships the true God, and, if you require aid, will risk his life in your service."
Reginald, greatly surprised at the way in which the man spoke, for he had supposed him to be an ordinary sepoy, promised to follow his directions. But on reaching the stables they found that, though most of the horses had been carried off, four or five had been left in the further wing of the building. Their harness was hung up on the walls, and the rajah and Reginald, well accustomed to the task, quickly saddled and bridled three of the best.
"You seem to take great interest in my follower," said the rajah, observing the assistance Reginald was affording the wounded man.
"He has fought bravely for your highness, and is wounded and suffering," answered Reginald. "I am simply doing my duty."
"May you be rewarded for your charity," answered the rajah. "And now let us mount and sally forth into the streets. The gates will be closed ere long, and should my followers not have entered the city, my only safe course will be to try and join them, and wait for a favourable opportunity of regaining what I have lost."
Reginald having assisted the rajah to mount, next helped Wuzeer Singh to get on horseback, though it was with difficulty the poor man could keep his seat; he himself then vaulted into the saddle, and the rajah, with the mantle which had before served to disguise him over his head, rode forth from the palace, followed closely by Reginald and the sepoy. The darkness which now reigned over the city favoured their proceedings. At the same time, it was but too likely that the gates would be closed; and if so, their friends would be prevented from entering. Already the streets were deserted, and no one appeared from whom, directly or indirectly, they could obtain information. The more peaceable inhabitants had, it was clear, wisely retired to their houses; while the fighting-men and rabble were evidently collected in a distant part of the city, bent on some mischief or other.
Reginald kept close alongside Wuzeer Singh, to assist him in sitting his horse, for so great was his weakness that every moment it appeared that he would fall off.
The soldier expressed his thankfulness. "If the sahib will but take my advice," he added, "he will persuade the rajah to come to the house of Dhunna Singh, who will protect him at all hazards. He has a stable in which the horses can be put up, and an upper room where his highness can remain concealed without risk of discovery when day returns. Dhunna Singh may be able also to inform him of what has happened, and he can act accordingly."
Reginald thought the advice so good that he at once suggested the plan to the rajah, who agreed to it after some hesitation. They at once, therefore, turned their horses along a street Wuzeer Singh pointed out. The few people who passed them probably took the rajah to be some merchant returning home attended by his guards, and did not stop to examine them closely. In a short time they arrived before the gates of a house of the style occupied by the more wealthy class of citizens. Here Reginald, throwing himself from his horse, assisted Wuzeer Singh to reach the small loophole, through which he could communicate with those within. After a few words had been exchanged, the gates were opened and the party entered. A staid-looking citizen, with several younger men, received them; and though they treated the rajah with marked respect, they did not otherwise show that they knew who he was. The old man only addressed him as sahib, and begged leave to show the way into the interior of the house; and while two of the younger men gently lifted up Wuzeer Singh and carried him indoors, the rest led off the horses to the stable. The rajah was at once conducted to the upper room Wuzeer Singh had spoken of, where his host paid him every possible attention. Wuzeer Singh, meantime, was gently cared for; and an ample repast was placed before Reginald. Their host, it appeared, was a Hindoo, who, with all his family, had been converted to Christianity; and, desirous of following the precepts of his faith, he was anxious to afford assistance to those in distress. He showed by his manner that he well knew who the rajah was; and he must have been aware of the great risk he ran in affording him shelter, should his concealment be discovered by Mukund Bhim or any of his party. Since the commencement of the disturbances he and his sons had wisely kept to the house, and so he could only surmise, from the reports brought by two or three people who had visited at his house, what was taking place. He believed, he said, that another khan of influence residing on the other side of the city had risen, either with the intention of supporting the rajah or of endeavouring to obtain the power for himself. Mukund Bhim having marched with all his forces to attack him, a desperate fight had taken place. The khan had been defeated, and Mukund Bhim's followers, with the rabble of the city, had for some hours been engaged in plundering his house and those of his relatives,—he and all of them having been put to death. Reginald's anxiety regarding Nuna was in no way relieved, as his host could not tell what had become of her. Several elephants carrying closed howdahs, accompanied by a strong party of armed men, had been seen leaving the southern gate of the city; but where they had gone, he had been unable to learn.
The first part of the night had passed quietly away, and the old rajah, after the fatigue and excitement he had gone through, slept soundly. Before morning, however, he awoke; and calling to Reginald, who occupied a small room adjoining his, he expressed his wish that when it was daylight he would go out and ascertain what was taking place.
As soon as their host was on foot, Reginald told him of the rajah's wish.
"I will send one of my sons instead," he answered. "He will run no risk; while you, notwithstanding your disguise, may be easily discovered."
The rajah consented; but some time passing by, and the young man not returning, he grew impatient, and desired that his horse might be prepared.
"Your highness will not surely venture to ride forth during daylight," said Reginald. "You would certainly be recognised; and though many citizens might rally round you, Mukund Bhim's party by this time must be sufficiently strong to cut them to pieces, and you would fall into the hands of the rebels."
"I wish to be in readiness to join our friends, who, if they come at all, will ere long be within the city walls; and I even now fancy that I can hear the tramp of their horses' hoofs," was the answer. "Come, my friend, let us be prepared to sally forth."
Reginald, though he believed that the rajah was mistaken, nevertheless obeyed; and having mounted, they sat in the courtyard ready to sally forth at a moment's notice.
They had not long to wait before their host's son returned with the announcement that Mukund Bhim, with a large force, was advancing towards that part of the city, breaking open the houses, and capturing all those who were suspected of being favourable to the rajah. "There is still time to escape by the northern gate; and though there may be great risk of falling into the hands of the rebels, it may be the safest course to pursue," he observed.
Reginald was of the same opinion, and urged the rajah to adopt it. By the advice of their host, the rajah wound a common turban round his head, the ends of which hung down so as to conceal his features; and as there was not a moment to be lost, the gates were thrown open, and Ali Singh, followed by Reginald, dashed out and made his way through some narrow lanes, now entirely deserted, towards the northern gate. As they came in sight of it they saw a number of people—some on horseback, and others on camels or on foot—hastening out to escape from the barbarities of Mukund Bhim and his fierce soldiery. They made their way amid the frightened multitude, and had already got outside the walls when they heard loud shouts raised behind them, when Reginald, looking back, saw a party of horsemen issuing from the gate, and trampling under foot or cutting down all who impeded their progress. He at once suspected that their flight had by some means or other been discovered, and that the horsemen were in pursuit of them.
"We must ride for our lives," he exclaimed, telling the rajah what he had seen.
Fortunately the road in front was tolerably open, and putting their horses into a gallop they dashed forward. Mukund Bhim's horsemen had by this time discovered them, and now came on in hot pursuit. Their chances of escape appeared small indeed. They were well mounted, however, and their good steeds behaved faithfully, straining every muscle as if aware of the importance of exerting themselves. Their pursuers, fully aware of the prize in view, galloped on even faster, and were evidently gaining on them,—firing as they did so, regardless of those they might kill or wound. More than once Reginald turned his head, and at length saw a further party of horsemen and numerous elephants issuing from the gate. His own horse kept up well, but the rajah's at length stumbled and nearly came to the ground; and Reginald feared that in a few minutes more they would be overtaken by their merciless foes. Still, there was a possibility of escaping, if they could gain the wood which they were now fast approaching. Just as they reached a turn of the road, however, they saw a large party of horsemen galloping towards them; and all hope of escape was cut off.
"We will sell our lives dearly," said the rajah. "Let us turn round and face our pursuers."
"No, no; gallop on," cried Reginald. "See! They are our friends. They have arrived at a happy moment, and the victory will be ours."
Throwing off his cloak, the rajah waved his sword, and was at once recognised by his troopers, at the head of whom rode Captain Burnett. In another instant the rajah and Reginald, wheeling round their horses, joined their ranks, and, without pulling rein, dashed with headlong speed at the rebels. The first charge was terrific, horses and riders on both sides going down; but Burnett's followers, having only just emerged from the wood, were fresh, while their opponents, panting from their rapid gallop, were taken at a disadvantage. The old rajah fought fiercely, few daring to encounter his sharp scimitar. Onward he and his party fought their way, till nearly every one of the advance-guard of the foe were cut to pieces or had galloped off on either side. At length Reginald caught sight of Mukund Bhim, the leader of the rebels, who, avoiding the rajah, rode forward to meet him. Reginald, warding off a blow aimed at his head, thrust his sword into the traitor's breast and bore him to the ground. The rebels, seeing their leader slain, made but a faint resistance. The mahouts turned their elephants off on either side, the huge animals rushing across the country; and the foot-soldiers fled back into the city, where many were cut down, others escaping in the track of the elephants. The victory was complete; and the rajah, at the head of his horsemen, re-entered the city in triumph.
The rajah's power was speedily re-established, those who might have been inclined to side with the rebel Mukund Bhim at once returning to their allegiance, and being the loudest in proclaiming their satisfaction at the rajah's success. His first proceeding was to institute inquiries for his grand-daughter, the young Ranee Nuna, who had so mysteriously disappeared; but no one could give him any information. Emissaries were despatched in all directions to endeavour to discover where she had been concealed; and the rajah proved the love he bore her by the anxiety he exhibited. Several of his chief officers and many other persons had disappeared; and as they did not make their appearance, it was naturally supposed that they had either been put to death by Mukund Bhim, or, through having joined him, were afraid of returning. Among the missing ones was Khan Cochut. A search was made for him high and low throughout the palace, but his dead body was not to be found, nor were there any traces of him to be discovered. The rooms he usually occupied had been stripped of everything of value, and Reginald, who had no great confidence in the ex-barber, could not help suspecting that he had made his escape from the city with all the wealth he could collect, and would probably next be heard of at Calcutta.
The rajah had vowed to take vengeance on all who had sided with the rebels, and his officers were now visiting every part of the city in search of suspected persons. Many hundreds were captured, and the streets of the city, according to Indian custom, would soon have been running with blood, had not Reginald and Burnett entreated the rajah to show clemency towards his foes. They pointed out to him that it was far more noble to save life than to take it; that the people were his subjects, whom he was bound to protect; and that the larger number had joined Mukund Bhim under the idea that he himself was dead. As he acknowledged that Reginald had been the means of saving his life, and that Burnett had also rendered him essential service, he was willing to listen to their counsel,—though nothing would induce him to spare the lives of the treacherous chiefs, several of whom were captured, and compelled to pay the penalty of their crimes with their heads.
Tranquillity was now apparently perfectly restored in the city; but it was reported that in the country large parties of the rebels were still in arms, wandering about in various directions, and plundering the defenceless. A near relative of Mukund Bhim was said to be at their head, but his whereabouts could not be discovered. Whether or not all the reports were true, they proved the disorganised state of the country, and made Reginald and Burnett wish heartily for the arrival of the expected resident and the British troops.
Still no information had been received regarding the Ranee Nuna, and the rajah continued plunged in the greatest grief and anxiety about her. Both Burnett and Reginald shared his feelings, and offered to set off in search of her. Burnett was most anxious to go. He had been struck by her beauty and captivated by her manner, so unlike that of Oriental females, and all the romance of his ardent nature had been aroused, though he might possibly not have been actually in love with her. They at length offered to go in company, but of this the rajah would not hear. "I must have one of you remain with me, as I need your counsel and assistance, seeing I have no friend in whom I can trust," he answered; "but if tidings do not arrive to-morrow, I will give permission to one or the other to set out. I am grateful to you both, but the one I appoint must abide by my decision."
Reginald and Burnett of course expressed themselves ready to obey the rajah, and they were too firm friends to feel jealous of each other.
Reginald had not forgotten the wounded sepoy whose life he had been the means of saving, and the first time he could leave the palace he made his way to the house of Dhunna Singh, who had afforded him shelter. He received a warm welcome from the good man; and he was glad to find that Wuzeer Singh was already in a fair way of recovery from the wounds he had received. The man was most grateful to him for saving his life.
"May the God we both worship preserve you, sahib," he said; "and thankful shall I be, if I can ever have the means of showing my gratitude to you."
Reginald had a good deal of conversation with him, and learned that he had been converted to Christianity by Protestant missionaries at some place where he had been stationed. He had, however, obtained his discharge, and had taken service with the rajah, for the sake of being near his Christian friend Dhunna Singh. He was evidently a most intelligent man, and all his spare moments were devoted to the study of the Scriptures and such other works as he could obtain to enlarge his mind. His great delight was to join his friends where, with closed doors, they could worship God in freedom. They none of them neglected the duty of endeavouring to spread the gospel among their countrymen, though they did so with the necessary caution, and had hitherto escaped the persecution to which they would have been subjected had their object been discovered by the priests.